From a Chinese Store to a Museum

Kam Wah Chung Company

By Steve Lent, Crook County Historian

Gold was discovered in Canyon City, Oregon in 1862. The area soon became a booming mining town. Shortly after the discovery of gold large numbers of Chinese began to arrive in the John Day valley. They vigorously did back breaking work mining. Once their day was done they returned to their China towns, first in Canyon City and after a devastating fire in 1885 it moved to John Day. In John Day they lived in small huts surrounding the KamWah Chung Company building. Kam Wah Chung was one of three businesses that catered to the Chinese population by selling groceries and sundry items. There was an extreme prejudice against the Chinese and they tended to live together.

Ing Hay had left China and had left his wife and family to come to the gold fields in the hope of making his fortune. He came to John Day in 1887. He had knowledge of Chinese herbal medicine and pulse diagnosis. Shortly after he arrived in John Day he was approached by a fellow countryman, Lung On, who proposed that the two become partners in the Kam Wah Chung Company.

Lung On quickly learned to speak and read English and he was soon sought out by his countrymen to write letters for them. Ing Hay could only speak broken English. Lung On was a savvy businessman and always looking for a promising business venture. Kam Wah Chung became a community center of activity for the Chinese. Ing Hay also established a Chinese medicine practice in part of the store. He became widely known for his good medical diagnosis and his herbal medicines and was known as “The China Doctor”. He traveled far to treat many patients of all races in the region.

Lung and Ing continued in business for many years even when the Chinese population significantly diminished by 1920. Lung became a wealthy man and stayed in John Day until his death in 1940. Ing continued operating the store until his death in 1952.

The City of John Day acquired the property around the store but the building remained untouched until 1967. City councilman Gordon Glass opened the building and found a treasure trove of historic items. Workmen later uncovered a cache of 72 bottles of bourbon. There was also a large cache of business records of the company. A Kam Wah Chung board decided to bring in scholars to aid in restoration and preservation of the site. Everything was carefully catalogued and indexed and a thorough cleaning of the building interior was done. The site was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It is now a State Heritage Site and managed as a museum by Oregon State Parks and Recreation.